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Linguistics is the scientific study of language, its evolution, structure, and usage. Linguistics demonstrates that languages are complex interactive systems. Languages evolve over time, they mutate, change, and develop to meet new situations. Factors such as geographical location, cross-cultural contact, and time all contribute to this. The rate of change is faster when the people speaking the language experience social change. Two examples are the way new words entered the English language from others during the age of imperialism, and the way new coinages enter common parlance to deal with modern information technologies.

Noam Chomsky (1928- ) has famously suggested that the basic structure of language is hard-wired in human beings. He argued that there is a specific organ for language processing and that humans are born with Universal Grammar,[1] an innate ability to understand basic grammatical principles. This view, originally known as Nativism, has evolved into Generative linguistics.[2] The validity of Universal Grammar remains a subject of heated (and rather nasty) debate within the linguistics community. On the other side of the debate is the Behaviorist view: that children are born as "blank slates" without Universal Grammar and gather all linguistic information from their environment. One piece of evidence for Chomsky's theory is that children of parents who speak a pidgin[3] will speak the language with a more sophisticated and consistent syntactic system than their parents, turning the pidgin into a full-fledged creole[4] language.[5][6] Something similar has been observed in the children of deaf people in communities where there was no known sign language, and their parents had to invent their own simple version. There is, furthermore, evidence of a community of deaf children in Nicaragua developing a sign language from scratch of their own accord.[7][8] It must be added, however, that the deaf children in Nicaragua did not grow up in a speechless community. They knew about language. This is therefore not quite the evolutionary jump that it is made out to be.

Evolution of language[edit]

The evolution of language in many ways parallels that of the evolution of biological species. For example, geographic isolation results in changes over time that can lead to two quite different languages from what started as a common language. The Romance languages provide a great example of this. French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian all originated from Latin, but over time the various dialects of Latin became distinct languages. One has only to contemplate the differences between British English and American English to see how quickly geographic separation can lead to the evolution of two dialects from what was once the same language (Early Modern English).

Studies of language on islands in the Pacific Ocean have clearly demonstrated how languages can change over time in geographic isolation. A group speaking the same language (hypothesized to be representatives of the Hemudu cultureWikipedia) travelled from mainland Asia and settled the first island they came to (Taiwan). Years later, as population pressure increased, a group set off from that island to a farther one. This sequence of events, repeated over time, resulted in the formation of the Austronesian language familyWikipedia. Studies show that the language of those who settled the first island bears the greatest resemblance to that spoken by the original migrants from the mainland. The farther an island is from the mainland, the greater the difference in the language that is spoken there. Small changes in language that occurred on the first island were carried to the second, where further additional changes developed over time and were carried to the second island, and so on. At some point, after the passage of time and distance, the populations living farthest apart no longer understand each other. This is remarkably similar to the process of biological evolution that can occur with species migrating from island to island, adapting to new environments, and eventually becoming incapable of interbreeding.

Linguistics in mythology[edit]

The story of the construction of the Tower of Babel and God's breaking of the builders' common language into many languages as a punishment was a primitive attempt to explain why there were so many languages on the Earth at the time (as there are still now).


Linguistics is a diverse subject that has several subfields, including:

  • Phonetics, the study of pronunciation from a purely physical and physiological point of view.
  • Phonology, the study of the rules that govern pronunciation and the interaction of phonemes, the smallest independent speech sounds. (The word "small" is composed of four phonemes, /s/, /m/, /ɔː/, and /l/)
  • Morphology, the study of the interaction of morphemes, the smallest meaningful parts that make up words (for example, the word smaller is made up of the morphemes small and -er).
  • Syntax, the study of the interaction of words, and the rules that govern sentence structure.
  • Semantics, the study of meanings of linguistic expressions, closely related to formal logic.
  • Pragmatics, the study of meanings inherent in expressions through context, but never, if rarely, stated. (A wife comes home to tell her husband that she is leaving him. He responds, "Who is he?" The presumption of an extra-marital affair with a different man is designed though pragmatics.)
  • Philology, the study of language from written historical texts, including changes in a language over time.

Other topics include:

  • Sociolinguistics
  • Dialectology
  • Psycholinguistics
  • Neurolinguistics, or Where is Language in the Brain?
  • Computational linguistics
  • Applied linguistics, typically including the teaching of a language or the study of linguistics.
  • Historical linguistics

See also[edit]


  1. See the Wikipedia article on Universal grammar.
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Generative linguistics.
  3. A pidgin is a hybrid of two different languages, used as an ad hoc lingua franca in situations where two language communities who don't speak each other's language are put together and try to communicate. Well-known historical examples involve slaves from different places being forced to work together.
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Creole language.
  5. A creole is a second-generation pidgin. The difference is that pidgin is contextually restricted and usually learned as an adult, used for communication between populations with no other common language; a creole, on the other hand, is a blend of two or more languages learned in childhood as a native language and used without contextual restrictions. Its enhanced complexity is a result of its early acquirement and its wide contextual range.
  6. This cannot be taken as support for any theory if you look into it. Pidgins are usually very basic systems of communication whereas creoles develop among settled populations, where the requirements of communication go far beyond "Me one fur. You boots."